Climbing Mount Barracks

University students investigate Charlottesville’s latest meteorological wonder

Beautiful vineyards. Delicious restaurants. Monticello. And, of course, the University itself. Charlottesville has no shortage of tourist attractions, but the list became a little longer when this winter's snowstorms hit the Barracks Road Shopping Center.

After the city experienced a record-setting 55 inches of snow this season, it all had to go somewhere. For many University students, there are still piles on either side of their driveways that linger despite the relative warmth of the past week. Barracks has had a similar problem, but its piles are attracting a lot more attention.

The reason? They're big. Really big. So big that many welcome them as Charlottesville's newest mountain range.

"I remember the first time I saw it," Charlottesville resident Sallie Cathcart said. "It was just ridiculous. I had no idea it could happen."

In fact, the city's newest landmark has become so well-known that even Janelle Stevenson, corporate communications manager for Federal Realty Investment Trust - the Rockville, Md. company that manages the shopping center - is aware of it.

The most prominent of the "snow mountains" that pepper the shopping center has its base next to Chipotle Mexican Grill and has spawned a great deal of local interest. A "Mt. Barracks" fan page created by Cathcart on Facebook, for example, has more than 3,000 fans. On the group's wall, Cathcart has posted statements such as, "We all bow down to your mighty greatness," and, "I climbed to the very top in heels."

Cathcart, 15, said she was surprised by the response.

"I realized no one had created a group for the actual pile," she said, so she started one.\nSoon, fans were pouring in.

"There was one day we got 800 people," she said.

Cathcart expects the pile, which she estimates to be 40 feet high, to remain until May, though posts to the Facebook page call for "a snowball fight here in June."

Apart from these amateur guesses, though, some individuals are evaluating the meteorological wonder more seriously.\nThe Mount Chipotle National Research Observatory, which was founded by University environmental sciences students, purports to raise awareness of the pile by "conducting research and educational programs and interpreting the heritage of the Mount Chipotle region," according to its Web site.

The group started a betting pool within the environmental sciences department to guess when the snow pile would eventually vanish.

"It started as casual conversation" about computer models of the mountain, said Graduate Arts & Sciences student Luke Cole, a Mount Chipotle NRO member.

Now, with 60 bets at $10 each, the pool supplements the "billions in the observatory's endowment," Cole said. The funds go toward departmental social events, he added.

Most of the bets published on the Mount Chipotle NRO Web site call for the pile to melt in April or May, but official predictions may have become "more conservative since the Himalayan glacier Climategate," explained David Seekell, another Mount Chipotle NRO researcher and graduate student.

"We can say that, at the current rate of melting, it will be gone by 2035," he said.

And it is not just the predicted lifespan of the pile causing debate. The name has raised contention, as well, as some individuals who have posted on the Facebook page are debating the merits of calling the buildup Mount Barracks versus calling it Mount Chipotle.

As the fan page she created indicates, Cathcart feels "Mount Barracks makes it more Charlottesville; there are Chipotles everywhere."

But others point out that there are multiple piles in Barracks - indeed, the NRO counts at least six, including Mount Teet, Mount GameStop and the "bourbon-soaked" Mount ABC, as Seekell said.

The researchers compare the naming distinction to that of Mount McKinley, which was known to the area's native population as Denali. Seekell asserted that "'Mount Barracks' is offensive to the native people," and Cole went so far as to call the name "disgusting."

The group may have been swayed, however, by its "research grant" from Chipotle - gift certificates donated to the betting pool. Cole said Chipotle has agreed to fund research "for 99 years, at a rate of one burrito every 16 years."

This rate is fine with Seekell - after all, "those are pretty big burritos."

Anyone planning a group lunch on Mount Barracks - or Chipotle - may have to give up hope, however, because University alum AJ Maher, who first proposed the betting pool, said the NRO "can't officially recommend" climbing on the mountain, though all the researchers have been on it because of their sampling efforts.

Although tourism provides "opportunities for education,"  there could be "a destructive impact if they exceed the mountain's carrying capacity," Seekell said. Moreover, rapid weather changes and avalanches make it "a climb only for the physically conditioned," he added.

Cole summarized the NRO's concerns by referring to an adaptation of an old saying on Mount Chipotle: "Take only burritos; leave only footprints."

Indeed, even non-researchers can agree the trek is not for everyone. Cathcart said although she has seen people writing about their ascents on the fan page, none of her friends have been up themselves.

"I was thinking about going but I heard a couple weeks ago, they got a guard out there," she said.

Seekell, however, scoffs at the "rent-a-cops" guarding the mountain.

"You may be turned back, but don't worry," he advised. "If you come back later, it'll be totally badass."

Even in their encounters with the real police one night, NRO members had nothing to fear, or so they claim.

"They pulled up next to us and shouted, 'Are you guys hiding?' Which of course we were," Maher recalled. "Then they started laughing at us."

Such tight security, along with the pile's celebrity status, lead many to wonder what "the Eighth Wonder of the World," as Cathcart calls it, might be covering. Rumors have spread that underneath the mountain may be anything from stray shopping carts to a car that Seekell refers to as a "steel core."

"Our archeological dig didn't get through the crust of the Carnitas Ravine," Maher said, adding that the increased avalanche danger posed by their use of heavy equipment deterred them from continuing.

Nevertheless, the team is hopeful, and Seekell said "we'll know if we hit something" during its regular samplings of ice cores.\nFederal Realty has been working on a statement to address some of the issues surrounding the pile, Stevenson said, but it was not available as of press time.

After a week of warmer weather and rainfall, though, concern about the mountain's fate has arisen.

"It definitely seems to be shrinking," Maher said, adding that seismic activity has increased "in response to climate change."\nThe NRO Web site even reported Feb. 9 that there already had been a 40-foot shift in the summit's position.

No matter what happens, the attraction known as Mount Barracks or Chipotle will likely retain its celebrity status. As the Facebook page continues to grow in popularity, and as the mountain continues to inspire, Cole encourages interested parties to keep abreast of the updates posted to the Mount Chipotle NRO Web site.

Published February 26, 2010 in Life

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Uncle Ike
(02/26/10 7:37pm)

Luke Cole is biased. He couldn't estimate the number of spider monkeys in an elevator without being sponsored by MasterCard.

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